Thursday March 26th, 2009

NEW ORLEANS -- They are a team living in the moment, but just now, the moment stunk.

Locker rooms are usually quiet after a loss, though that quiet is often disingenuous among the players who don't really care one way or the other. The Hornets have many flaws, as their 101-88 loss to the Nuggets on Wednesday revealed, but insincerity is not among them. Chris Paul's eyes were evil with anger, like the villain in a silent movie. His teammates were distressed by the outcome too.

"We still have a long way to go,'' said sixth man James Posey, the last player to appear out of the shower long after Paul and New Orleans' other All-Star, David West, had departed. "We have the pieces. It's just the will to want to do it on a consistent basis, to have the willpower to get it done.''

They may have a long way to go, but the Hornets are a team that cannot afford to play for tomorrow. It isn't supposed to be that way, but they realized the financial realities of this otherwise promising season just last month when they traded Tyson Chandler to Oklahoma City for reasons of money and basketball.

After Chandler's departure, the locker room was as somber as it was Wednesday, and in that setting team management explained to the players why the starting center had been sent to the Thunder for big men Joe Smith and Chris Wilcox. Of course the Hornets needed to unload Chandler's contract to avoid paying a luxury tax next season, but they also needed to improve their rebounding. At the time the deal was done, New Orleans ranked dead last in rebounding, and Chandler had not been playing as well as he did last season.

After Chandler failed his physical, Oklahoma City rescinded the trade. The Thunder sent Chandler back to New Orleans, and then something important happened.

"As soon as Tyson came back, the rebounding improved big-time,'' Hornets coach Byron Scott said. Chandler returned to the court Feb. 23, and suddenly the Hornets became the No. 1 rebounding team in the NBA over the ensuing three-week span. "It coincided with seven straight wins, and nine out of 10,'' Scott said.

It was no coincidence that the Hornets, and Chandler in particular, began to rebound when they realized what was at risk.

"Tyson is one of those [important] guys. I don't think anybody expected him [to be traded],'' West said before Wednesday's loss. "If something like that happens, if he can go, then anybody can go, anybody can be moved. I think also guys looked at it that if he wasn't here, then guys would really have to step up [to replace him]. Just the entire feel of our team changed when he came back into the locker room.''

Many other teams are going to experience similar revelations this summer if the gloomy forecasts come true and financially distraught teams begin unloading untenable salaries that happen to be attached to famous names. Many of the teams looking to make a deal will be losers, but some -- like the Hornets -- will be dreaming of winning a championship.

In New Orleans' case, the lesson is clear: It had better win now before it's too late.

"I think sometimes you need that extra oomph to get you going, you need something to motivate you at times,'' Scott said. "Once that trade was done and rescinded, it was probably the best thing that happened to us because it got everybody to notice, You know what, we'd better try to take care of business this year. Because you never know.

"I always try to talk to our guys about the window of opportunity. I say that window of opportunity is that big,'' said Scott, holding his hands a yard apart, "but I also let them know, Guys, it's slowly shrinking. You've got these games, and you've got to try to take advantage. Nobody can predict what's going to happen next year, who's going to be here, and who's not.''

In many ways, this is a high achievement team worthy of sympathy. The Hornets have been without Chandler and Peja Stojakovic for a combined 43 games, in addition to other injuries and the uproar of Chandler's coming and going. They were a thin team to begin with, and yet they've remained in contention with five fewer wins than they had at this time last year when their season was smoother and free of interruption. They had won three straight -- albeit against lottery-bound opponents -- approaching this meeting with Denver, and they hoped to prove they could overcome the absence of Chandler and Stojakovic for one more defining night.

But the Nuggets aggressively trapped the ball out of Paul's hands, and he neither scored enough (19 points on 11 shots) nor had enough help from teammates to overcome the combined 71 points from Carmelo Anthony (29), Chauncey Billups (26) and J.R. Smith (16). Scott had warned his team that at least one of those three scorers needed to be stopped, but the Nuggets pulled away with a 6-for-6 start in the fourth quarter to double their lead to 18 points while forcing a season-worst 19 turnovers overall from the Hornets.

Afterward, his teammates having already departed, Posey dressed in an empty locker room. The Hornets signed him last summer to import the championship experience he gained while winning titles with Miami (in 2006) and Boston (2008). He talked about how the Spurs or the Celtics might have lost a game like this without two of their better players, but they also would have put up a better fight.

"There's still a lot of time,'' he insisted. "You just have to play great basketball at the right time. I found that out at Miami. We'd go on win streaks and then lose some, but the last two months we were playing great basketball going into the playoffs and then things started clicking for us.''

It's entirely possible Posey's new team can regain its health while developing the approach that was absent this night. But the question is, Will it? The one thing Posey exaggerated is the most damning truth: Only 10 games remain before the playoffs, and this team of the moment suddenly is running short on time.

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